Lighted paper bags stand as memorials to those lost at a drug overdose victims' vigil in Portland's Monument Square in 2015.

Maine is in the throes of a pervasive public health crisis. Bolder systemic change is needed in Augusta to ensure justice and foster healing for Mainers, their families and communities.

The opioid epidemic has been a primary issue for the Mills administration since the governor was elected in November 2018. That same year there were 354 fatalities as a result of overdose statewide. Following a year of decline was a recent upsurge in deaths, with the first nine months of 2019 seeing a disheartening 4 percent increase in overdoses — 277 — despite worthy efforts to confront the issue across many professional sectors.

Thus far, the government has placed primary emphasis on prevention and treatment to address the epidemic. Increasingly, harm reduction techniques such as distribution of naloxone — an overdose antidote — are gaining buy-in. These interventions are essential to deterring the epidemic as they reduce the likelihood of overdose and increase chances of recovery, but they are clearly not enough.

In the beginning of 2019, The Maine Coalition for Sensible Drug Policy pooled their considerable expertise to generate a series of policy recommendations for tackling the crisis. The administration has expanded access to treatment and naloxone but has yet to deliver on the recommendation to decriminalize possession of drugs. LD 1492, An Act to Reform Drug Sentencing Laws could remedy that shortcoming by lifting unprecedented harsh drug penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs.

Softening the disproportionately severe legal consequences associated with these low-level drug related offenses is critical for several reasons: Punitive practices are stigma-generating, trauma-inducing and oppressive to marginalized groups. The pressing epidemic is a mental health-related public health crisis that cannot be solved with the antiquated “ tough on crime” ideology. Incarceration as a response to drug-related offenses is directly linked to heightened chance of overdose. Those leaving prison are a staggering 129 times more likely to succumb to overdose than the general population.

Local and national advocates identify stigma as a major threat to effectively fighting the opioid epidemic. Stigma is responsible for inflaming the already painful and isolating experience of mental illness and substance use disorder. It develops when people face barriers of a criminal record or social hurdles associated with the criminal justice system. Fear of incarceration, judgment, and indefinite punishment discourages those in need from seeking treatment and community connection.

Harsh criminal justice practices also increase exposure to trauma and disrupt healthy development for children and families. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences has demonstrated that individuals who are exposed to traumatic events throughout their youth, such as separation from a parent due to imprisonment, are significantly more likely to face chronic health and wellness issues in adulthood.

Incarceration is not a form of substance use treatment. The “tough on crime” tactic is not only ineffective in countering the risks of drug use, but rigid policies also have been demonstrated to be racially targeted and fundamentally unjust. This rhetoric has harmful impacts on communities of color and people living in poverty, leading to the unwarranted mass incarceration of targeted groups. For example, people of color are six times more likely to serve time in jail for substance-related charges than white people, despite equal rates of substance use.

It is essential that Maine’s representatives take into consideration discriminatory drug laws, given the history of systematic racism in the US criminal justice system.

Maine is positioned to lead the nation with effective and holistic intervention in response to the opioid epidemic. By endorsing LD 1492, Mainers can end the harmful “war on drugs” and invest resources into an effective and stigma-free system of recovery.

Hilary Thibodeau is a master’s degree candidate in Social Work at the University of Maine, a graduate student at the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, Maine Chapter at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of either university. The national Scholars Strategy Network brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.